This October, we’re celebrating some of the best horror films ever made. Look out for a new classic review daily across the month on The Film Blog, as well as more special treats along the way!
We’re serving day twenty-two with fava beans and chianti.
Anthony Hopkins gave Jonathan Demme the performance of his career for The Silence of the Lambs and was rewarded with an Academy Award. Yet, all too often praise for the Welshman’s essentially supporting role outweighs due acclaim for Jodie Foster. As FBI trainee Clarice Starling, Foster is tough, resourceful, genuine and a bone fide icon of cinema, right up there with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. Naturally, she too bagged an Oscar; as did Demme.
Complementing the thoroughly human performance of Foster, Demme‘s camera frames Clarice as the audience surrogate. It is via her perspective that the thriller, which is based on the novel by Thomas Harris, unveils and through her eyes that its characters are appraised. Note, for instance, how Demme shoots Clarice at a slight angle in most of her conversations, whilst the figure she speaks to is direct to camera. In a rare, but pleasing, twist for horror cinema, this is point of view framing employed to stir empathy, rather than voyeuristic dread in viewers. The film’s reputation for cruelty is undeserved, with most of the fear being born of more nuanced touches than the Francis Bacon inspired crucifix sequence. As it happens, most of the people Clarice does meet are leering men with sexual ideations.
There is, however, one character in the film with the ability to steal the directorial eye from Clarice – in much the same way that he takes command of their shared interrogation scenes. Featuring in just twelve of the film’s hundred and eighteen minutes, Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter is an arresting screen presence in every one of them. With his piercing blue eyes and sultry, serpentine vocal delivery, Lecter is the epitome of evil, a paradox of burning rage within a shell of dispassionate grace. His crimes are despicable, so why do we like him so? Lecter is a figure of paralleling perception and reception; verbally he’s billed as ‘a monster’ but physically Clarice finds him to be a vision of still restraint. In the hands of Hopkins, he is the strange case of Dr. Lector and Mr. Hannibal the Cannibal.
Despite his infamy, Lector is but a proactive pawn in the chess game of Harris’ plot, adapted to screenplay by Ted Tally. The real antagonist here is the mentally troubled serial killer known as Buffalo Bill. It is in his attempt to catch Bill that Jack Crawford, of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, turns to Clarice, whose lack of qualification is offset by her passion and talent for grilling. Sent to Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, Clarice is instructed to do just that with psychiatrist turned cannibal Lecter, in the hope that his insight might prove useful. The only problem is that the last person to push Lector wound up on a plate ‘with some fava beans and a nice Chianti’.
Such is the electricity of the scenes in which Hopkins and Foster face off that it is almost surprising to find that the film does not suffer in the majority stretches of their separation. It helps that the story is a gripper and boasts narrative flourishes even beyond its leading duo. Ted Levine plays Bill – a character whose conflicting transvestist status falls a touch fowl of modern sensibilities – and does well to galvanise a villain who is far easier to hate. From about halfway through to the end, Bill traps his sixth victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith), down a brilliantly designed well, whilst sewing with human skin and dancing, penis trapped between legs, to Goodbye Horses by Q Lazzarus. It’s a disturbingly unforgettable image, matched, in part, by the sight of Catherine clinging onto Bill’s toy poodle, Precious, at the bottom of his pit.
Instantly quotable and impeccably paced by Demme, The Silence of the Lambs is a cultural gem of a film. Clarice puts it best when she identifies her emotional response to a severed head as being ‘Scared at first, then, exhilarated’.